Opening RAW files with the Highlight Recovery Mode in Sagelight (and a demonstration of why RAW is so cool)

In Sagelight 3.0, I introduce the Highlight Recovery Mode.  This is nothing unique to Sagelight, but provides an option to change how your RAW image is handled.

Every RAW Image needs to be adjusted

When you get the JPEG image from your camera, it has been highly processed, especially these days.  My Canon Powershot 780, for example does a minimum of the following:

  1. It corrects the lens distortion on the picture
  2. It blurs the colors (but not the luminance)
  3. It does some form of noise reduction on the pixels
  4. it sharpens the image.

Blown out Areas and Sagelight’s RAW processing (it’s a little different, on purpose)

Many pictures have blown out areas, and that’s where the Highlight Recovery Option comes in, to help reduce these areas.

Here is a sample picture, as processed by the camera as a JPEG image, provided by Chris Axford.

Original Image JPEG from the camera

And here is the original histogram

As you can see, there are some serious blown highlight in this picture.  If I were to edit it, to the best of my ability:

Best job I can do with the JPEG file

Enter RAW

Let’s look at the RAW file, as opened by the default RAW open in Sagelight

Picture brought in as a RAW image

Here is the histogram

It’s a little better than the JPEG, and the best results I can get out of this RAW image are noticeably better.

RAW picture processed

Highlight Recovery Mode

Now, let’s look at the RAW file when loaded with the Highlight Recovery Option

RAW file loaded with Highlight Recovery Mode

And the accompanying histogram

Now, that’s much better.  You can see that the histogram has nearly zero blown highlights (maybe a little into the red, but nothing significant).  Also notice that the flower has much more definition, as well as the reflections from the bear (see the closeup below).

Here is what I was able to do with it:

Processed Highlight-Recovery-loaded RAW file

If we look at a direct comparison between the processed original RAW file, loaded with no highlight recovery, and this one that was:

With a closeup:

The Differences

As you can see, the differences are pretty large.  In the original RAW file, the white areas of the flowers are completely washed out, the pink has what I can only describe as a “yuck” factor (I mean, would you buy a bear that color?  That‘s almost as bad as the new school signs), and the reflections are glaring.

By contrast, the RAW file processed with the Highlight Recovery option has a much more natural look, and nothing is washed out.

And that’s just with a little basic processing.  Further edits would make the differences even greater.

Why not just use Highlight Recovery all the time?

Highlight recovery is not the default due to a factor called Range Compression, and is only used for files that need it.  In this case, it worked out great.  But, let’s look at another example, one that doesn‘t need highlight recovery:

Contributed by David Jacobs

Here is the histogram when loading with the default RAW option (before post-processing):

(no highlight recovery)

And here it is, loaded with Highlight Recovery On

(highlight recovery)

Some may disagree with this, but my thought on it is that the range is now compressed, and I’d rather have the range, because the less the histogram is compressed (I.e. as much RAW interpolation as possible), the more quality you have in your image. (note: you could say that because the non-highlight-recovery histogram has any values in the right-hand side (i.e. the green dot) that it is better to use highlight recovery, as this may represent a specular reflection that is being washed out).

When to use Highlight Recovery

Basically, if your image looks like it has blown out highlights, just reload it with Highlight Recovery On.  This will also help with fringing that can occur in these cases.  This occurs because some colors blow out more heavily than others.

How Sagelight RAW handling differs with some other editors

Many editors handle this automatically, so some files may look better than others in other editors because highlight recovery is an option in Sagelight.

In my testing, for example, Adobe Photoshop made some pictures look better (before using Highlight Recovery in Sagelight, where they either looked the same or better), but on others it didn’t make them look as good.


Highlight Recovery for RAW files in Sagelight may not be seen right away.  But, it’s a great option for files with blown out or high levels of highlights.

It isn’t the default option to help keep quality higher on files that don’t need it.

The above example with the bear is a good example of why using RAW can be nice.  The JPEG delivered by the camera just isn’t nearly as good as the ones where the RAW file was loaded — and this is just a picture of a pink bear!

Imagine how much nicer other pictures could be.

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